Friday, September 30, 2022

My Big Break, by Josh Stallings

Criminal or crime writer?

What is the greatest crime a writer can commit? 

Some say plagiarism. Yes, putting your name on another writer’s work is bad. Others might say it is failing to use the Oxford comma. Me, I think the worst crime a writer can commit is, well, murder. I mean that is biblically bad. On the other hand to quote Thomas Pluck, “Some folks just needed killing.” So with that moral caveat, that old testament loophole, some folks need to be turned into a pillar of salt. I am led to the next question, how does one learn to be a killer?

Researching violence or mayhem or even murder is easy for crime writers. FBI kicks in my door, grabs my files, sees diagrams of First National’s vault and security system, or dictionaries of poison, all I need to do is say, “I’m a crime writer, that’s research.” 

Show them a few book jackets with my name on them and they mutter, “Un-cuff him, he’s just another do nothing writer.” 

Added bonus, ammunition and range time are tax deductions. 

Their underestimation of crime writer’s penchant for destruction is our super power.

Write about sex, well that’s an entirely different deal. Write a convincing sex scene and everyone including your mother will ask about your research. “The scene in the Ensenada brothel, you know, um, did you, you know?” Yes, my mother asked me that, but never questioned where I learned how to use a broom handle and a guitar E string to make a garrote.

I am not a sociopath or is that psychopath? Doesn’t matter, I’m neither. I’m just a guy with a particular set of skills and a very flexible moral code. I am a pacifist, mostly, I’m a vegan for goodness sake. Sometimes I worry about the screams broccoli makes when it’s harvested. I would never hurt another creature, I mean unless they deserved it. Take that SOB who bumped into me and made me drop my Fudgsicle. He was asking to be pushed into the cross town bus. I fucking loved that Fudgsicle. Does that make me a psychopath?

I don’t think so.

Honestly, I was pure amateur, solving societal rudeness one body at a time. Like Emily Post, I mean if she was serious about etiquette. That all changed last Left Coast Crime. I had just checked into a convention hotel when an unnamed writer, we’ll call that hard boiled Scotch egg Catolina McFierceness, invited me to the bar. Or I think that’s what she did. She said, “Awa’ an bile yer heid.” When I sat down across from her, that has to mean “Join me.” Right? I did, having zero idea what I was getting into. At the head of the table was C-I’m not the boss-Ace. Anyone who has “I’m not the boss” in their name, clearly is the boss.

“This is an easy in and out,” C-I’m not the boss-Ace said to McFierceness, “slip past a battalion of Texas Rangers, whack that target and poof…” She stoped speaking when she noticed me. “Pal of yours?” She asked McFierceness.

“Na, eegit’s eggs are all double-yoakit.” That had to be a real nice compliment, C-I’m not the boss-Ace let a deep laugh rip. Slapping the table she made the drinks jump and skitter about. Instantly the mirth turned to menace. C-I’m not the boss-Ace stared me down. She gave me two choices, go to work for Criminal Minds Murder LLC, or learn to do the wet mambo in cement Capezios…

“Hell yes! I’m going pro.”

It was getting near dusk when I met T-Ain’t It A Damn Shame-Shames in the parking lot of Austin's massive indie bookstore. Our cover was, we were there to do a “book signing” event. Brilliant, crime writers can be in any town that has a book store and they have a perfect alibi. Now when you hear us fighting to keep indie book stores open, you’ll know why.

It seemed weird that no one from the book store had reached out to me, when I ask T about this, she told me not to worry and changed the subject, “We have a couple hours to kill, have you seen Barton Springs Pool?”

“At Zilker Park?” I’d been swimming there the day before with my wife.

“Right, but have you seen it at night?”

“I thought they closed at sundown.”

“Closed, open, such subjective words.” When she said it like that it made sense. Something about a molasses smooth Texas Hill Country accent made everything sound innocent and sweet.

The gate surrounding Barton Springs Pool was locked. T had a master key, that’s what she called her bolt-cutters. The sky was turning inky black as we walked down the incline to the water’s edge. The pool was mirror smooth, reflecting constellations. I was able to pick out one my father taught me, “Isn’t that the hunter, what’s his name?” I pointed to the stars.

“Orion, Zeus placed him in the heavens, even though he wasn’t a real nice guy.” T held a short barreled .44 aimed at my chest. 

I started to laugh, maybe it was a joke or hazing. Her dead eyes told me a different tale.

“You think I’m not a nice guy?”

“No darlin’ you’re nice as nice can be. You just sat down at the wrong table, heard the wrong conversation.” She thumbed the hammer back.

“T, come on you know I’d never ever say anything. Swear.” I broadly crossed my heart. “Swear. For real real. You can trust me.”

“That’s real sweet of you.” Her finger started to squeeze the trigger. “Bless your heart.” Were the last words I heard.

Thursday, September 29, 2022

Rumble, by Catriona

You claim to be a writer - so write me something. Write a short story - no more than a thousand words - featuring some or all of your Criminal Minds colleagues.

Seems like a good moment to take my first step into noir. Maybe. You tell me.


What you got here, see, is you got two weeks. And two days between, like a peace line. So say you got Babyface Brenda on a Monday, then you know you got Tip Toe Terry right behind her, Big Daddy Dietrich keeping it cool, Jay-Z up next, mixing it like a whisky sour, and Mukhers bringing it home, little bit of that James Bond style, you know?

They call themselves Group One. Bold talk. But no swagger, amirite? Up to now we let it slide. Says more about them than it ever did about us.

Us? We're the other week. They call us Group 2. Wise guys, huh? We say nothing, think plenty, all of us staring back across the weekend. Truth is, we been light since our buddy Paul lit out for good. Course we got weight to spare. We got Ace. The Boss. The Enforcer. With Ace on our week, we ain't worried about them others. Well as her, we got Frenchie on a Monday, Josh the Cosh, Yours Truly and, well, we been looking for a Tuesday Guy. Had the word out a while. And now we got lucky.

Of all the bloggers in all the world, who should wander onto ours but Gabriel V. (He's no angel.) And now Ace is feeling all of it, with V at her side. She's done. She's ain't taking no shit from no one no more. 

Long story short, it's time. We're all in. Frenchie is small but scrappy, Josh the Cosh is built like a fridge, Ace and V are the brains. And I'll do my bit. We're ready to rumble.

Trouble is . . . TT Terry used to be one of us, before she switched. And Jay-Z's a good guy, just fell in with a bad crowd. Babyface Brenda and Daddy D ain't so bad either, I've broken bread with the both a them before, shared a beer. Josh the Cosh? It rhymes but no more. Guy's all heart. And Mukhers? Could say we should stick together, him and me. We came up in the same place. Different crews - the Weegies and the Edders - but the same spot. Gotta mean something. Speaking of the same spot, TT and Frenchie have been known to share a crib a time or two.

Take all that - loyalties, history, geography - this job could go wrong in a heartbeat. This could get messy AF. And who'd still be standing when chumps like us were bleeding out? You need to ask? 

This world ain't perfect but it's all we got. I ain't leaving it to no Jungle Reds. Not today.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Saved! A very short story by Cathy Ace

You claim to be a writer - so write me something. Write a short story - no more than a thousand words - featuring some or all of your Criminal Minds colleagues.

Castel Coch, in Wales, via Canva
It was a dark and stormy night – appropriate, considering it was the annual gathering of the bloggers who called themselves The Criminal Minds.
        “I can’t do it.” Cathy’s voice betrayed her terror.

“But you must.” Abir’s usually-jocular demeanor had evaporated. “You have to do as I say.”

Cathy’s chin quivered. “I hadn’t expected this of you,” was all she could muster. She was afraid that saying more would enrage Abir…make things worse.

“It’s just a thousand words.” A rumble of thunder accompanied his treacly tone.

Cathy considered the man she’d always thought of as rapier-witted, rather than tyrannical; his laptop sat on the antique desk, and glowed in the darkened room. The empty Word document represented a chasm she knew could swallow her whole.

As she considered her predicament, she wondered why on earth she’d chosen this ominous place to host the annual meeting; a castle on a clifftop in Wales had seemed like the ideal place to invite everyone, and – since her lottery win – she’d been able to plan similar events for family and friends with the carefree abandon that comes from knowing you’re a millionaire many times over.

All The Criminal Minds had agreed they’d continue with their blogging schedule despite their luxury break, little realizing what that would mean. Each month, one of The Minds had the task of setting four questions, which would then be answered by the bloggers. It had become something the bloggers – and those who followed the blog – expected, and the system had worked well for more than five years.

But now…this challenge…

It had seemed a small task to Cathy when she’d read the questions, set by Abir, for September, but now she realized there wasn’t a one-thousand-word story in her. She’d never written flash fiction, nor tackled the challenge of truly short-short stories; her briefest to date had run to almost four thousand words, and she believed in her heart she wasn’t capable of writing anything worth reading in fewer.

Desperately, she dared, “How do people do it? Create mood, a sense of place, characters we can root for, or be glad to see bested, in such a short format?” Maybe begging Abir for advice might allow him to retain his superiority, an even offer her at least a glimmer of understanding.

“Hardest job there is, as a writer,” he replied, his eyes glittering in the white glare of the screen. “Spare vocabulary, laden with meaning. A strong storyline, with a great twist, and a punch at the end. Editing, of course, and polishing…merciless cutting and rewriting. It’s a unique skill set. Takes time.”

Time? That was what Cathy knew she didn’t have; as always, she’d procrastinated, waiting until there were only hours left to post her blog. She’d hoped inspiration would materialize during her flight to Wales, or even as she waited for her guests to arrive and unpack in their sumptuous suites. But inspiration had evaded her as surely as a cat burglar with a pocket full of purloined pearls…and now Abir was beside her, whispering.

“The four others have all posted theirs. Come on, get typing. I brought my own laptop, so I can even post it for you. There must be something you can get on that screen. Look around…you’ve brought us all to Wales, where you, a Welshwoman, should certainly feel at home. There’s a storm setting the mood, and nothing for you to do for the next hour before we’re all due to meet for pre-dinner drinks here, in the library. Besides, it’s only a bit of fun…it’s just for the blog.”

Cathy’s tummy turned. “But I want everything I write to be the best possible piece I can make it. I haven’t the time to write it, hone it, and make it as good as it can be.” She cursed silently, knowing she’d let herself down, and now she was about to let her fellow bloggers down too.

She allowed her mind to seize on a crazy idea…a reason for it to be acceptable for her post to not appear at all…

She grabbed the heavy antique-brass table lamp and swung, catching Abir completely by surprise as the makeshift weapon smashed into his left temple.

He staggered backwards, his arms windmilling.

He grabbed a chair to steady himself, but Cathy was beside him.

She swung again, battering him with repeated blows, until his body lay, crumpled, on the floor. He didn’t move. Didn’t breathe.

She wiped the lamp to remove her fingerprints, then dumped it onto the floor beside Abir’s corpse. Stuffing her hand into the plastic carrier bag she always had in her purse (at last, a “You’ll never know when you might need it moment” had arrived!) she opened one of the leaded casement windows. The rain bounced off the plastic as she reached around and smashed the adjacent window inward, then she strode across the room, shaking the drops off the bag as she went.

She grabbed Abir’s laptop, and threw it onto the wide-planked, ancient floor, where the screen smashed.

Spattered with blood, Cathy raced to her room, avoiding the creaky stair tread she’d noticed upon her arrival earlier in the day. A change of clothing, a cold soak for her blouse with some bleach-laden toilet-bowl cleanser, a wipe of her face and hands – checking in the mirror for any suggestion of blood smudges – and she was ready.

If she got to the library first, she could be the one to raise the alarm…suggest that an intruder had been trying to get their hands on Abir’s secret – yet much whispered about – work in progress, which was bound to be a bestseller…for someone.

No one would expect next week’s blog posts to appear after such a tragedy.


Tuesday, September 27, 2022

The Minds and The Case of Missing Waffles by Gabriel Valjan


I was killing commas by the light of my laptop when the police stopped us on the rural road. I counted casualties onscreen while Jim and Susan argued French grammar. If a punctuation mark slowed down anything more than a sentence, our driver didn’t know it. We were the third car in a caravan of Criminal Minds when the whelp of a siren and cherry lights directed us to the shoulder of the highway.

            An officer’s flashlight tapped glass.

            Everyone was asked to vacate their vehicles and present identification. We shivered on the blacktop as one of two officers reviewed our credentials. A driver inquired and we heard: “Three dark sedans attract attention.”

Another driver said, “We were driving under the speed limit.”

“Which makes you more suspicious. The tinted windows didn’t help.”

His partner approached him. “They say they’re writers: one’s from Texas; two are from Boston; two Canadians. Of the three Californians, one of them has a weird accent.”

“Excuse me,” Catriona said. “You’re the one with the accent.”

The officer asked his partner, “And the last one?”

A whisper. “Foreign national, but wait until you hear the voice.”

“Flashlight their vehicles, while I return their paperwork.”

He walked down the line, handing back their documents. Brenda, Susan, and Terry tolerated ‘Ma’am’ in triplicate, while Catriona huffed, “What’s with the torch?”

“The what?”

“The flashlight.”

“Procedure. I’d like a word with this last gentleman.”

He stood before Abir and perused the passport again. “You’ve grown whiskers since this photo was taken. Says here you were born in London.”


“You don’t sound like you’re from London.”

“Because I spent my formative years in South Lanarkashire, Scotland.”

“Same as your friend who called a flashlight a torch?”

“No, she’s from Em-bra.”

The officer would’ve pressed further, but his partner returned. “Anything?”

“Silver flask in a back seat. You gotta see the size of this thing. You could drown your liver in it.”

Jim stepped forward. “That would be mine, and it’s strictly for show.”


We decamped at the B&B, arranged by the group’s mistress-mind, Cathy, who had given us the choice of a cruise ship or a spot of land for the writer’s retreat. Since none of us had either sea-legs or a script for Dramamine, we opted for terra firma. We thought it suspicious that Cathy had been lured away at the last minute to give a lecture on locked-room mysteries to a maritime audience.

            Our hostess, Mrs. Muchmore, ran the place like a drill sergeant with an egg timer. She enumerated the times for reveille, lights-out, and meals. She defined ‘respectable attire’ tableside and set our daily word counts.

After she clopped off, we socialized in the parlor. Josh was the first to voice what we were thinking. “Isn’t she the epitome of less is more?”

            Terry added, “Why do I feel like we’re the Torrances at the Overlook Hotel?”

            I joined the medley of mixed-genres. “Let’s hope she isn’t Annie Wilkes.”

             Catriona said, “There goes any hope for a proper tea.”

Abir replied, “You mean a cup of hot water, with tea bags on cold plates.”

            “If Mrs. Muchmore mucks it up, then it’s Jim’s flask of Dewar’s for me,” she said. “Is that okay with you, Jim?”

            “Scotch for the Scots, all in the service of a noble cause.”




I was debating clemency for a comma when Mrs. Muchmore rushed into the room like a fullback. “Waffles is missing.”

            Her verb disagreed with her noun, but none of us played editor. A tired Dietrich didn’t hear the nuance and asked, “Breakfast for dinner?”

            Minimalist as Carver the writer, what the distressed Muchmore talked about when she talked about Waffles was to say that Waffles was a rare ginger, a polydactyl descendant of Snow White from Finca Vigia, and so named for the color of his fur.

            “A cat?” Brenda said.

            Susan replied, “A Hemingway cat, to be exact.”

            Josh stood up. “A Cuban cat in America is a great title for a short story.”

            Either due to the loss of her feline or what she perceived as insensitive writers hungry for a story prompt, Mrs. Muchmore fled the room. As if we were in a bad movie, lightning flashed, and thunder rumbled. We all looked up and heard the rain.

            Catriona said, “I’ll insist on tea if I’m to go out in a monsoon for a moggy.”

            She didn’t. We didn’t.

Each Mind searched a room, east to west, north to south, and above and below, finding no evidence of Waffles. Not even a kitty tumbleweed. What we did find, however, were the castaways from bygone visitors. Books and bookmarkers. One Mind hurled a copy of Rod McKuen’s poetry across his room. I think if it were not raining he would’ve requested his room to be saged and exorcised.

            At last we reconvened in the main room and commiserated over generous pours of Dewar’s from Jim’s flask. Flames in the fireplace crackled and the recriminations set in. Jim and I felt the heat, and it wasn’t from the hearth. We lived with cats. We knew the ways of the feline. I had Munchkin, and Boko and Tuppy owned Jim. At last, Terry spoke for the magnificent seven sitting across from us, the two writers from New England.

            “Aren’t you two supposed to be cat whisperers?”

            Before either of us responded, Jim’s cell rang. The ringtone was of an insistent meow.

Out from under the couch Waffles crab-crawled and mewed.

Jim answered the call, after which Susan said, “You solved the case.”

“No, I didn’t. Cathy did.”

I asked, “How is that possible?”

“The ringtone I have for her attracted Waffles, but I’m afraid we have a new mystery.”


“It seems somehow Cathy has locked herself out from the blog, and she’s asking for our help.”

Monday, September 26, 2022

So, you claim to be a writer by Susan C. Shea

You claim to be a writer - so write me something. Write a short story - no more than a thousand words - featuring some or all of your Criminal Minds colleagues.

From Susan

I know it’s a cop-out but I only got a working computer back a few hours ago and it’s not working right. Lots of lost or hidden folders and docs including those related to my current novel and the one in copy edits. So, yeah, I’m a little too stressed to get creative on the spot. Plus – and who needed this – my bad kitty, the one with three legs, got out of the garden again and just showed up all “what’s the matter?” ten minutes ago. She’s a real Houdini and I keep spending more money to escape-proof the yard and she hops nimbly over everything. Whew….

How about I share some other writers’ creativity? I just bought these at my local indie today:

WOLF HALL didn’t sit right with me. My conceit was I knew a great deal about that period of English history and her attempts to humanize or even make us – gasp - like Thomas Cromwell were fiction-light. I was wrong, I realize, based on the acclaim the book earned, so, hearing that what we have of her work is all we’re going to get, I am parking my snootiness and coming to BRINGING UP THE BONES with fresh eyes and proper humility.


I watched the zoom interview at Book Passage with Leila Mottley and was quite simply blown away. She’s a kid, but young in chronological age only and surely the most articulate, thoughtful, writerly savant I have ever listened to. (Also a poet if she needed more intro.) I just had to get NIGHTCRAWLING. It’s set in Oakland, California, where the task of growing up black and poor is hard and the tragic failures far too common.


Successful TV writer Richard Osman was a finalist in the 2020 Edgars for the first novel in this series, The Thursday Murder Club. Of course it had to become a series and THE MAN WHO DIED TWICE is the second. The third has just been published, but I need to catch up with #2 first.

Friday, September 23, 2022

Publish and Be Damned

by Abir

Cancel culture: In these polarized times, and in light of recent events, are there any topics or viewpoints which you would not write about or which you think are off limits?



Just over a month ago I was in Oxford, attending the annual St. Hilda’s Crime Fiction Weekend. It was while sitting outside in the sun, having a drink with some other writers that the news came through from New York of the attack on Sir Salman Rushdie.


At that point the information was sparse. There’d been an attempt on the writer’s life. It wasn’t clear if he would survive. The news sent a chill through us all. A writer, attacked for something he’d written. It was an action that had repercussions for every author on the planet.


It got me thinking. I write about issues, about things in the world that bother me, things that I feel are unjust. Naturally, this covers the worlds of politics and religion. Of course I’m aware, and extremely thankful for, the fact that I live in a free country, where I can say or write pretty much whatever I want to, and normally the worst that’ll happen is I’ll get an irate e-mail from Alan in Baltimore or a fulminating tweet from @chunkyboy129. Writers in China or Russia or so many other places don’t enjoy that basic, yet fundamental freedom. Even in India, that long-time bastion of free speech and a free press in a region of autocracies and dictatorships, that freedom – to write what you want to write - is being eroded. And if theTrump years have shown us anything, it is that our freedoms are not as abiding or as secure as we might wish to believe, and that they need constant defending.


Bringing things closer to home, there has been the rise of what is termed ‘cancel culture’. I honestly don’t know what to make of the ‘phenomenon’. Like my colleagues earlier in the week, on one level, I see it as an overdue reckoning where wrong, often racist or sexist ideas are finally stood up to and answered. For too long we have accepted a very pale, male, stale Anglo-Saxon view of the world as the dominant, if not the only, acceptable narrative. I think a lot of folk complaining about cancel culture are people really complaining that their views are no longer held in high regard by most people. They’re basically complaining about a loss of influence.


Yet I don’t think it’s as cut and dried as that. I do feel that we are living in an age which, though hugely more tolerant in terms of attitudes towards sexuality, race and religion, has become quite puritanical in regard to dissent from views that chime with the new orthodoxy. The days of ‘I disagree with you, but I’ll defend your right to say it’, seem to be over. It seems that the voicing of a dissenting opinion is now deemed hurtful on an almost physical level, often requiring trigger warnings.


So I’m conflicted. I don’t know where the balance is.


Anyway, back to the question. I like to think there’s no subject I’d shy away from, assuming I wanted to discuss it and had done the research to treat the subject respectfully and knowledgeably, but I’m not sure that’s completely true. The debate over trans rights and identities, for example, is one area I suspect I’d probably steer clear of – even assuming I had the knowledge of the subject to write meaningfully about it. It just seems too highly charged. However, that’s a purely hypothetical surmising as it’s not a subject I feel there’s anything that I could add to the discussion anyway.


Then there’s the issue of cultural appropriation. There has been a reaction in recent years to certain authors writing about the experience of other ethnic groups. One that comes to mind is American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins – a story of Mexican migrants coming to the USA, written by a white American woman, which was hyped to the rafters by the publishing industry. When certain Latinx people pointed out that similar books, more authentic books, written by Latinx writers were ignored by the publishing industry while this white writer received a huge advance for writing this book, there was a justified backlash. (and is 'Latinx'  even the right word? Even as I write it I find myself fearful that I'm using the wrong term - and isn't that fear part of the issue we're discussing? I don't mean to cause offence, but someone might be offended by my use of potentially the wrong word and then what?)  


I think the first thing to say is that in the instance of American Dirt, the author is hardly to blame. She wrote a book and got paid a lot of money for it. That’s great and more power to her. We all want that. I guess the real problem is the publishing industry which holds up the white narrative on non-white issues as somehow worth more than the narratives of those writers who actually come from those communities and can discuss it as their lived experience. The publishing industry needs to change (as does the book buying public) – and I think it is, if only slowly. I was at an event the other night – my publishers, Vintage (part of Penguin Random House) held a press event for their marquee titles for 2023. There was a mixture of British, Irish and American writers – some household names, some debuts – but the most interesting thing was the diversity. As far as I could tell – out of about fifteen or sixteen writers – only one, maybe two, were straight, white and male. That would have been unthinkable even five years ago.


So where are we? Greater diversity, hand in hand with greater puritanism. Greater breadth of stories, yet greater repression of writers saying the wrong thing. It’s hard to know which way the wind is blowing. Exciting, challenging times lie ahead, so buckle up.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

De Gustibus Non Disputandum Est from James W. Ziskin

Cancel culture: In these polarized times, and in light of recent events, are there any topics or viewpoints which you would not write about or which you think are off limits?

First, I don’t believe in cancel culture. There are repercussions for actions. That’s all. No one has to love you or buy your stuff if you do something odious.

So, no, I don’t particularly worry about offending people’s sensibilities with my work. But I do have opinions on what I would and would not write.

We all write what we’d like to read. Dietrich mentioned it in yesterday’s post. I’m no different. I won’t say there are topics that are off limits for me from a moralistic point of view. Or a political one. But there are some that I don’t feel “comfortable” writing about.

Just as I don’t enjoy rollercoasters, I am averse to non-stop tension and dread. I don’t want to read it because it makes me uneasy and causes me stress. Some people love that kind of thing, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But we all have our personal preferences for entertainment, and mine are, I suppose, more on the emotional and pensive side than the relentlessly tense.

Don’t get me wrong; action is great. There are wonderful books that do a masterful job keeping readers on the edge of their seats for 350 pages or more. An unyielding pace of thrills and danger can make for excellent writing. Just not so much for me. It stresses me out. I need a break. A lull in the action to catch my breath and steel myself for the frightening twists ahead. I appreciate, for example, the moments of respite in a Ludlum novel, where Bourne, though running for his life, finds a safe place. For a night at least. The same can be said for Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. There are terrifying moments, interrupted by short periods of calm and safety. The characters, as well as the reader, can rub some blood back into their knuckles before the next heart-pounding chase and escape.

My books are more “patient.” I like that my protagonists have time to live, think, and make regular life decisions throughout the story. Sure, there’s danger at some point. Points, even. But I want my characters to be relatable in the real world most of us inhabit. I realize that millions of readers love the escape of a nail-biting adventure that never lets up, but I’m not the writer to deliver that experience. Which is okay. De gustibus non disputandum est, as my father was wont to say. (There’s no accounting for taste.) That’s why some folks read cozies while others read horror. Some like wrestling, some love ballet. Me? I can’t eat lobster. I gag. That doesn’t mean others are wrong for tying on the bib and sucking the meat and juices out of the spindly legs. I just can’t do it.

Just as I can’t stomach nonstop stomach-churning tension.

Another subject I would never write about is serial killers. They usually don’t interest me. There are exceptions, for sure, but the reptilian-cold murderers of many don’t light my fire. I’m much more interested in why regular people kill. Are drawn to killing. Make the mistake of killing. An average Joe accidentally runs over and kills a vagrant on his way home from the office late one night. He hides his crime. But how well? Now that’s a story I could write. Or the woman who kills her lover in a fit a rage. Or self-defense? Was it or wasn’t it a justified killing? Or even a cheating husband caught in a blackmailing scheme. A blunt object suddenly presents itself and… Free. Or is he?

There are other topics I find too unsavory to write about. Torture, molestation, terrorism, and war, for example. At least not over the course of 300 pages. These I could use in subplots—and I have—but without overindulging on the vice and gore.

Finally, I don’t believe I would ever write a detailed sex scene. It’s the best way to earn justified ridicule. Just close the door and let your characters have at it in private. But I have written a short story that takes place at a 1950s wife-swapping party on New Year’s Eve. (They didn’t say swingers back then, so wife-swapping it had to be!) There’s no sex at all on the page in my story, however, so I hope to be safe from ridicule. “Prisoner of Love,” comes out next year in an anthology edited by Gary Phillips, Get Up Offa That Thing: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of James Brown.

So, in conclusion, no, I don’t avoid topics out of fear of offending. But I do follow my personal taste. I enjoy writing what I write, and encourage others to do the same. How boring the world would be if everyone ordered the same dish at dinner.


Wednesday, September 21, 2022

May contain crime

Cancel culture: In these polarized times, and in light of recent events, are there any topics or viewpoints which you would not write about or which you think are off limits?

by Dietrich

I find an idea that grabs me and I put pen to paper, and I let that idea grow into a chapter, and on into a first draft. That initial spark needs to be strong enough to carry me through to the end.   

There are topics that I stray away from, and character types that hold no appeal for me. In the year or so that it takes me to put the polish on a novel, I tend to be choosy about the subject matter and the imaginary folk who I spend time with, probably no different than most writers. Personally, I wouldn’t want to share that head space with some deranged serial killer, terrorist, or lunatic loaded up and intent on shooting up a school. In a nutshell, I write the kind of books I would want to read myself.

Being a long-time Stanley Tucci fan, I watched The Lovely Bones a few years back, based on Alice Sebold’s novel of the same name, in which he did an unsettling, yet unforgettable job playing serial killer George Harvey. In spite of an Oscar nod for best actor in a supporting role, Tucci was quoted as saying, “I couldn't wait to leave it behind. A good part is a good part, but a role like this takes its toll on you. You can't wait for the end of the day.”

I’m often drawn to creating underdog and marginal characters for my novels, and I like coming up with stories rich with twists and dark humor. And I like telling my tales from the POV of these characters, both good and bad. Their views don’t often reflect my own, in fact, they rarely do. The aim is to have their actions and dialogue seem genuine, unfiltered, and totally believable to the reader.

“It is about the fear that all creative people must now feel if they are going to write. I believe that writers should not be cowed. We should not be made to do things because we’re so scared of starting a storm on Twitter.”  — Anthony Horowitz   

I’m aware of sensitivities and the boobytraps out there for writers these days. There’s a certain boldness required to write in the first place and put it out there. And I think if I were too cautious when writing a crime novel, then I’d likely end up writing porridge, and I’d be holding a novel in my hands that wouldn’t hold any reader’s interest past the first few pages.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Could I? Would I?


Terry here, with our question of the week:

Cancel culture: In these polarized times, and in light of recent events, are there any topics or viewpoints which you would not write about or which you think are off limits? First of all, I dislike the phrase “cancel culture.” It has the connotation that there are a group of people, a “culture” that delights in mass shaming. I think people who most deride the idea of “cancel culture” seem to lack understanding that there are in fact behaviors that deserve condemnation. And the fact that condemnation of behavior sometimes catches fire with large numbers of people doesn’t mean it’s a culturally-driven action. 

 As for the question of whether there are topics or viewpoints I wouldn’t write about there are no topics I consider off-limits. If I can write about the heinous “sport” of dog-fighting, and feature a character who engages in it, I can write about pretty much anything.
If I can write about a man maimed in the service of his country, and whose country fails to support his well-being when he returns, I can write about anything.
If I can write about a man who failed to act when his sister was being assaulted, I can write about anything. 

 Bigotry, racial animus, and police brutality have shown up in my books.
I have written about religious intolerance. I don’t shy away from showing bigots, corrupt police, and racists in a bad light. But I also don’t shy away from making them human, with more than one dimension. I think a rounded character is more interesting than a character whose only trait is “good” or “bad.” With that idea in mind, I can imagine writing about behavior I despise. 

I abhor the proliferation of guns in this country, and yet I have a recurring character who believes that if everyone had a gun, things would work out better, a viewpoint I am diametrically opposed to. My lead character, Samuel Craddock, sometimes gets annoyed with the man’s bombast, but he also knows that the man has a developmentally disabled son whom he is very kind to. I think it makes him more interesting than if he is just “one thing.” 

 There are topics I would struggle with—child abuse; human trafficking; and torture come to mind. But the bottom line is, I write about murder. Murder. The deliberate taking of another human life. And I try to explore what leads people to think the only way they can achieve their goals is to kill someone else. In the process of an investigation, Samuel Craddock runs into all kinds of unsavory behavior. I couldn’t write a realistic story if I didn’t bare those behaviors and their consequences. I wouldn’t be doing a service to my readers if I pretended terrible things didn’t exist. 

I once had a letter from a minister of a mega-church in the south, who said he loved my books because they were so “wholesome.” I was shocked. I write about murder. I use curse words. I write about the effect of crime on a community. Maybe he meant that I always see that justice is done, even if Craddock feels compassion for the perpetrator.
Writing from different viewpoints is another matter. There has been a movement in the past few years condemning writing that “appropriates” cultures/ethnic groups/experiences that don’t reflect the writer’s experience. I’ve thought about that and wondered if I would shy away from writing from the viewpoint of someone completely out of my experience. I think a writer has to call on imagination for almost everything she writes. I’ve never killed anyone, nor have I investigated a crime. And yet, I write about a chief of police investigating murder. I’ve never been a man. I write from the viewpoint of a man. 

So I’m not afraid to take on different viewpoints…up to a point. Could I write from the viewpoint of a black disabled woman? An indigenous American? A starving child? I suppose I could, but would I? Probably not. I’m not sure my imagination can do justice to them. I may be wrong, and it doesn’t mean I’ll never try it. Years ago, someone on social media asked if you could spend a day as anyone else, who would it be? I immediately thought I’d like to spend a day as a powerful black pro basketball player. Why? Because it would be interesting to be: an amazing athlete, black, and a man. All three of those categories would be an intense revelation. I would get to experience in my own skin things I know nothing about physically. Could my imagination conjure the experience? Maybe, but it would be a stretch. 

 And that’s the bottom line. Can I, as a writer, do justice to what I write about? I suspect there are limitations, but then never say never.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

The Outer and the Off Limits

Cancel culture: In these polarised times, and in light of recent events, are there any topics or viewpoints which you would not write about or which you think are off limits?

Brenda here.

So if I list topics or viewpoints that I would not write about, am I in fact writing about them?!  Hmmmm. Wish I studied philosophy when I had the chance.

This is actually a very relevant question and one worth pondering. During my writing career, I haven't steered away from any issues that crop up through the telling of a story. I've dealt with racism, forced marriage, teenage prostitution, misogyny, and other societal issues. After all, murder and crime happen for all kinds of reasons, always to do with relationships and often power imbalances.

I lean towards the side of never say never when it comes to what I write, however, I would not use my writing to promote or glorify injustice, racism or prejudice. I might have characters who have some nasty traits, but they are not the heroes or protagonists of my stories. It's actually kind of rewarding when readers tell me they want a certain character to get their comeuppance for bad behaviour -- to dislike a character enough to write to me about how much they dislike them -- kind of means I nailed it! One cop in particular named Woodhouse in the Stonechild books garnered a lot of negative reader wishes. He does redeem himself somewhat in the second-last book, and being able to shift perspectives about him was also satisfying. 

Even in this time of polarized viewpoints and political shenanigans, I try to have compassion for people who do not believe what I believe. Everyone has a different life experience, pressures,  influences... I think it's important not to demonize someone for their beliefs; it's the ones in power who lie and manipulate for their own ends who get me hot under the collar. 

In my last few books, I've had ultra rightwing characters who don't show very well on the pages, mainly because of their prejudices and self-righteous nastiness. Crime fiction seems to be a good vehicle for shining a light on issues without preaching --  the characters can express viewpoints that I as the author do not hold, but I can tell the story in a way to make these traits reprehensible or have consequences.

So, back to this week's question, are there topics I will not write about? I'm not convinced there are, although I will say that you can rest assured that I will not kill the dog or let the evil-doers get off scot-free.


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Friday, September 16, 2022

Straight Out Of A Dyslexic Brain By Josh Stallings

Warning, this post is unedited. Yep for circumstances beyond our control Erika didn’t see read or edit this before it went up. 

That’s not entirely true we had control we just chose to be present for our sons instead. This last week has been chocked full of minor and not so minor health events and road trips to LA and staying up all night to help a vile sick stomach work itself out. We choose to be present for our loved ones even if we have a deadlines looming.

It takes guts for dyslexic to fly without an editorial net. Here are a few times I f’d things up because I can’t frickin spell.

Once Bee Arthur was shooting a film, something about AA I think. The producers wanted to film in my Great Grandmothers house. My grandfather agreed, if the writers would read a screenplay I’d written. They did. And I sent them a script about a Undercover cop going into a San Francisco Punk Band to arrest a heroin dealer. This was before we typed on computers. No spell checkers, but I did go over it, and Erika went over it, and with 9-billon errors we missed more than a few. The Hollywood writers big comment was, “Before you write about San Francisco, learn to spell it.”

I was gutted.

When twitter came along I was blasted by fellow writers for not spelling words correctly. (Oddly they knew what I meant, I know this because in their attacks the told me the correct spelling.)

When Tricky was published, some how the non-edited version was sent to the printer. Erika was busy caring for her father whoes health was failing. I didn’t notice until I started getting complaints sent by readers. 

I was double gutted. It was fixed quickly and after screaming into a pillow I let it go.

A book about neurodiversity miss spelled by a  dyslexic author. The gods sure love their irony.

You’d think after a lifetime of humiliation over spelling mistakes I’d learn. But I am stubborn as hell, so here I am again hanging my ass out in the wind… Ok, so this weeks question was…

Tell us the things you hate/find frustrating about the publishing industry; and finish by telling us one thing you love about it.

My first books  (Moses McGuire trilogy) were published by Heist Publishing. A company that consisted of Me, Erika, an editor for hire, and a ebook formatter. They sold well.

My Anthony nominated memoir was published by a micro mini tiny press. It went quickly out of print. 

My Anthony and West Coast Crime nominated, Young Americans was put out by Heist again.

Tricky was published by Polis/Agora. They are a small press doing big work. It is the first of my books to get national notice. And even though it was my best selling book, in the mainstream pub world it’s numbers were underwhelming. This is not a complaint, I love the hell out of Tricky and all they did for it.

As you can see I’ve never been published by a legacy or mainstream publisher, or even a small press supported by the above. I’ve had acquiring editors like my work well enough to take it to the big meeting. None have yet been able to sell the company on me. I don’t blame them, quiet the opposite. These editors give me hope, and bolster my belief in the work. 

Here’s what I wish I knew when I was starting out, without a major publisher backing your book, it’s hard to place it in the stores that will post number that will impress major publishing companies. 

Right now I am writing at the top of my game. A lifetime of practice and six published books have given me a command of words if not their spelling. And I would have a much easier time selling a book if I had never published a book before.

I witnessed this in the movie business, unknown potential is easier to support than a a creative who has had a flop. (Flop = film that underperformed the studios expectations.) It seems to me the reason for this is two fold. One, as William Goldman said “Nobody knows nothing.” And two, it is easier in a corporate meeting to defend a new comer’s hot music video reel, than a seasoned filmmaker who already proved they know how to fail.

I’m scrawling this with pen and paper in the ER, waiting with my son to see a doctor. 

I am reminded what really matter.

As for publishing world, every thing I said is true and it’s not. Their are tons of stories of writers who wrote a book so damn compelling it got publisher regardless of the writer’s track record.

So my fellow dreamers, readers, writers, film makers, we all just need to keep fighting to create the best work we can. 

After all worst case for me would be to spend time away from those I love writing a book I didn’t like.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Boucher (rhymes with voucher) Con, by Catriona rhymes with marina

The title of this post is offered in loving tribute to Jess Lourey, this year's co-toastmaster, along with Lori Rader Day. That's Jess Lourey rhymes with dowry, whose next book features a character called Claude rhymes with howdy.

You'll have gathered that I'm ducking this week's question in favour of a Bouchercon round-up. Okay?

I wasn't one of the ones newly released from solitary, falling on friends' necks like parched desert travellers finding an oasis (because I've already been to Left Coast Crime and Malice since the end of the Great Pause), but it was lovely to see people out and about for the first time. For example, Barb Goffman, Dana Cameron and Lisa Alber, gathered in the middle from both coasts and loving it.

My Bouchercon started with a Wednesday Guest of Honour (and hangers-on, obviously) dinner at Wood and Paddle. There was fried cheese curds, there was walleye, and there was this en route: a statue of Mary Tyler Moore, flinging her hat, on the street corner where MTM flung her hat!

I went to quite a few panels on Thursday and Friday: on secret agents, on the hot picks of reviewers and bloggers, on historicals; plus the nominees for best PBO and best novel; and GoH interviews of Alexander McCall Smith, Attica Locke, Ellen Hart and Kent Kruger. The programming was excellent. Kudos to Jessica Laine Mork (here with her husband, volunteer Jessie Chandler, and me, on their anniversary (Wednesday)):

Friday also saw me interviewing the toastmasters. On the one hand, this was the easisest task ever assigned: asking Lori and Jessie to be wise and funny for an hour. On the other hand it was a nailbiting ordeal: we have been friends for years and I feared that a three-way conversation would be what I believe is called "inside baseball". I know what that means - exclusive and off-putting - although I have no idea of the etymology. I think we avoided it. Certainly when any of the many people who said nice things afterwards said those nice things and I grabbed them and asked for reassurance in the needy way that's so attractive, nobody broke it to me.

Saturday was a big day of panels for me. It kicked off with "Humour" at nine o'clock. Yes, that's a panel about comedy at nine o'clock on a Saturday morning. It should have been a disaster. BUT Jessie Chandler, that juggernaut of joy, was moderating and the panel also included:

Charlaine Harris! As well as Rob Osler, Matt Goldman, and Craig Johnson, so all was well. I even got the chance to ask a question. I wanted Rob to explain how he writes funny physical comedy - it's beyond me. His answer was hilariously unhelpful. "I love slapstaick," he said. "So I put it in my books." Great, Rob, I'll do that then. 

Panel number two was a pretty star-studded affair. With a critical mass of Scots, too. Matt Goldman (him again) moderated Alexander McCall Smith, Caro Ramsay, Jo Nesbo, Stan Trollip and me, talking about weather in mysteries. Allegedly. We drifted. Like snow. Also - this is pure bragging - in the course of the pre-panel chat, I learned that AMcCS is (or was on Saturday) reading one of my books. Yeek.

photo credit: Peter Rozovsky
My final Saturday panel - ethically timed for after the voting had closed - was a selection of contributors to the new MWA handbook HOW TO WRITE A MYSTERY, featuring Dale Berry on comics, Naomi Hirahara on historicals, me on humour, Alex Segura on noir and Charles Todd rather poignantly on writing in partnership. I came clean about having to Google "how to write humour" to kickstart my chapter and was NOT kicked off the panel and torn out of the book, but rather was assured that I'm not alone. Who knew?

Photo credit: Jean Steins

Later that evening our book won the Anthony award for best non-fiction. Here is Laurie and co-contributor Oline Cogdill, with me in the background. (Dale suggested it was like the end of A Fistful of Dollars and I'm saying "Reckon things'll be a little quieter in this town from now on . . .". Dale should have written the chapter on humour, eh?)

The full list of winners is here. But briefly, congratulations, Shawn, Shawn, Alan, Jessie, Mia, Hank and Laurie. And congratulations to all the nominees.

Sunday was a blur. 

Actually Thursday was a bit of a blur too. I came back from lunch to the news that the Queen had died. Immediately, I felt far too far from home, intensely sad, somewhat surprised by the level of sadness and generally rubbish. People were very kind. There were toasts to her memory and to the new King (still so weird), texts from home - both homes, hugs galore with no need to account for why hugs were needed and there was also William Kent Kruger. His GoH interview happened to fall a couple of hours after the news and I tell you: it might be hard to arrange but, if you are ever feeling bruised and saddened and discombobulated, Kent's sweet funniness and shining goodness is a great help. 

Terrible pic, but that's Kent in the hat

Of course, free speech means you can open a thread in the comments about the trouble with monarchy, and the disgrace of hereditary privilege, and the reasons people shouldn't mourn public figures. But you don't have to, just so's you know. You can think things you don't say. (I haven't seen much knee-jerk cool-kid sneering, thankfully, but I haven't seen none. And you know what I did? I thought things I didn't say.) 

One thing I did manage to do on Sunday, besides meet Helen from Mullholland Press at the UPS store (because they generously included shipping in their bundle of books for the auction*) was take probably my favourite photo of the convention: Wanda Morris, debut author, and Kellye Garrett, mainstay of the community, in the bookroom:

*Did you like the way I slid in the information that I bid on a box of twelve books at the auction? Well, the Women's Prison Book Project is a good cause, and I had only read one of the twelve, and that one was Kellye's LIKE A SISTER, so I can put that in a wee free library in my small town (see t-shirt, above).

My one regret is that I didn't snag a picture with our newest Mind, Gabriel Valjan, despite the fact that we sat together at the Anthonys and shared a drink at the "Underrespresented Voices" reception. Ocht!

Apart from that, it was a wonderful Bouchercon, even given the weird Thursday. Three cheers to organisers Terri Bischoff and Devin Abraham for their vision, their values and their sheer graft.